Sunday 13 June 2021 5:42 pm

England 1, Croatia 0: It wasn't perfect but England have won hardest game, the sun shone and Wembley sang. And that's enough for now

An awful lot has happened in the three years since the World Cup but some things remain the same.

England can look like world beaters one minute and lightweights the next, rampant for spells and then frustratingly meek in others.

The difference was that this time they managed to hold onto a lead against Croatia, starting their Euro 2020 campaign with a hugely valuable win. After a wearyingly hot and emotional afternoon at Wembley, that should be enough for now.

For a while there it felt like this might turn into the perfect occasion.

The national stadium was abuzz for the first England game here in front of fans since November 2019, and the 20,000 in attendance sounded like the full 90,000 when roaring the players out onto the pitch. 

England’s new golden boy Phil Foden kept Wembley at fever pitch by hitting the post after five minutes. Kalvin Phillips tested goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic with an audacious volley.

After more than a year of sterile, behind-closed-doors football, here was an expectant crowd being whipped into a frenzy by an electrifying start from the hosts.

Southgate’s quandary over England Euro 2020 opener

Then the old England resurfaced – and, to give them due credit, Croatia awoke from their slumber.

Suddenly Gareth Southgate’s team were not camped in their opponents’ half, Foden, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount bursting in behind.

Now Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic were shuffling the ball between themselves, teasing England.

Croatia looked to find space to cross. One delivery went through Tyrone Mings. You feared, and the crowd fell quiet.

There was reason to fear, of course, not least because of what happened three years ago.

Then, England swarmed all over Croatia and raced into a lead, only to lose their first World Cup semi-final since 1990 in extra-time.

Wembley echoed to the sound of England fans for the first time since November 2019
Wembley echoed to the sound of England fans for the first time since November 2019 (Getty Images)

This Croatian team might have shed Mario Madzukic and Ivan Rakitic since, but Modric still runs a game with effortless grace.

And this fixture has previous, Croatia winning at Wembley in 2007 to deny England a place at the European Championship and doom Steve McClaren. 

This was always going to be England’s most difficult game in Group D, and as such posed Southgate a quandary.

Unshackle his array of attacking talents, feed off the national expectation and throw caution to the wind. Or accept that a draw would be perfectly acceptable against dangerous rivals, knowing that Scotland and the Czech Republic are still to come.

Southgate of all people knows that the defining factor is not how you start a tournament but how you finish it.

The last time England had kicked a ball at Wembley in a major tournament it was him missing a penalty against Germany in the semi-final shootout at Euro 96.

England retreat, Croatia advance, Wembley frets

England emerged re-energised in the second half and fashioned the goal they needed.

The impressive Phillips stepped inside two challenges as he cut in from the right and fed a through-ball to Sterling, whose finish was swift and powerful enough to beat Livakovic.  

With Croatia reeling again, Harry Kane almost bundled in a second goal moments later from a low cross at the far post. 

And then old habits crept in again. England retreated, Croatia advanced, Wembley fretted.

Unlike 2018, this time England did manage to hold on. 

It was far from a perfect display, with Kyle Walker wobbly, Jordan Pickford nervy and Kane peripheral. 

But the facts are that England have won their hardest game, showed enough flashes of promise from Foden, Sterling and Phillips to whet the appetite, and will surely now qualify for the last 16.

The sun shone, Wembley reverberated to Three Lions, people smiled. And that, after everything, is more than enough.